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An Engineer to Executives

( Originally Published Early 1900's )



As an engineer who by force of circumstances, or force of some As thing else equally valid, has come to be a senior executive, I am in position to appreciate the mental attitude of the engineer and likewise that of the executive. As a result of wrestling dialectically and spiritually with junior engineers through some thirty-odd years of executive responsibility, I have stored up an assortment of descriptive epithets, polite and otherwise—stored them up because my appreciation of the pure engineering type of mind has required me to hold my tongue on occasions when peace of my soul and body demanded sudden and emphatic utterance. If I have once in a while failed in repression, I pray that my victims of the minute may have given me credit for the many other times that I have held my tongue, presumably to the detriment of my own digestion and certainly to the detriment of the peace of my long suffering family.

Since on the present occasion I am writing as an engineer, it is well that I record these facts, lest some executive, who may read this, shall rate me as a partisan because of my early experiences as an engineer and my well known preference for engineering work. To such a reader I would say that, if I have not suffered at the hands of engineers to the same degree as he has, it can be due only to one of two causes—either my engineering slant has made me more comprehending of the engineer's thought processes, or in selecting juniors I have been guided by my knowledge to the picking of fewer lemons. Be that as it may, I assure any such casual reader that I have had, continue to have, and expect to have hereafter, very nearly my full share of trouble. So that it is with an educated mind and ripened experience that I undertake as an engineer to address the executive, while at the same time being an executive.

The Easy Answer

Now what is it that all this boiling of trouble is about? The executive who, by force of his position, is compelled to consider all angles of the business—finance, sales, public relations, character of service and so on ad infinitum—observes- that many engineering decisions are made without due consideration of factors other than the strictly technical. That is, that many technically perfect or near perfect solutions of engineering problems are far from commercially perfect. Either the effect upon the character of service or the effect upon the mind of the customer or the effect upon current or future financing, or something else of equal importance to the executive brain, has been ignored or overlooked.

It is disconcerting to receive from an enthusiastic engineer at the last minute a perfect solution of an intricate problem and then discover that failure to consider the problem from some important "nonengineering" angle vitiates the conclusion. And it is still worse to discover the defect after the solution has been partly or completely embodied in costly equipment, on the prima facie showing of an engineers' report. Admitting that such things happen and also that they happen more frequently than the executive thinks they should, and more frequently than they would happen if he had time to be his own engineer, where lies the source of the trouble? The easy answer is "in the one track, noncommercial mind of the engineer." But is this the real, honest-to-goodness answer, or merely the easy one? I think it is the latter.

Let me present the situation in a different light. The activities of the engineering departments of our companies are the only activities which make contact to any great degree with all the factors of our business. Public policy may be dictated by our executives, customer relationships may be cared for by our commercial departments, accounts may be kept by appropriate parts of our organizations, and so on; but back of and underlying all and touching all is the planning, the designing and the construction of the engineer. Properly done, his job requires not only the application of specific technical knowledge, but an understanding of and appreciation of the needs and the problems of almost every other department.

For a Wider Usefulness

Now what are we doing to develop individuals capable of solving engineering problems in this broad way? It is now the fashion to take our cub engineers from the technical schools and colleges. Far too often, I fear, we pick them because they have demonstrated such marked ability in the mazes of higher mathematics or such facility in the acquisition of this or that specific form of technical information that they have particularly impressed some academically minded member of the faculty. And in sequence to the picking, far too many of us place such raw material in this or that branch of our engineering department and proceed to develop an ingrown species of engineer to whom certain fences that are daily before his eyes mark the bounds of his, and of his department's, domain, within which domain he and his associates will resent bitterly any intrusion by nontechnically educated intelligences.

If we want to get technically perfect and commercially lacking solutions of our problems, this is undoubtedly an ideal way to develop so-called engineers to that end. But, as an engineer, I refuse to admit that junior engineers as a class are incapable of wider usefulness. In the earlier days of our industry those of us who survived were educated by stress of circumstances. We had to do everything from running the power plant to shooting trouble on the lines, or holding the baby of a harassed housewife while she found the missing key to the cellar stairs, so that a meter could be read or a fuse replaced. Now the larger and more complicated organization, which has been forced upon us almost overnight, has made impossible such comprehensive (though rough and ready) education in or understanding of every phase of our business. And we are more and more resenting results without digging deep enough to discover the causes.

Engineer that I am, and optimist that I continue to be, I still do not have the temerity to hope that by any process of education we can make real and complete engineers out of all the cubs that come to us. Some there will always be who might better expend their energies in selling bonds, and some who will forever be limited to manipulating slide rules and logarithm tables in the mechanical solution of equations; but I know that the use of better planned educational methods within our company organizations will develop out of the raw material that comes to us a sufficient number of real engineers who will have that proper blending of technical and commercial knowledge with common horse sense which is required by our necessities.

Put Them Through the Whole Works

If the education of engineers wholly within the engineering departments of our companies does not seem to be producing the type required to fill the higher ranks of our engineering organizations, why not try the opposite method? Such a change would have at least the advantage of being consistent with the method used in the greater part of human advance. Why not pull all our technical graduates that we employ through all or most all of our departments, and let 'those who ultimately gravitate to engineering do so with at least some general knowledge of the other activities of the company and some appreciation of the multi-faceted structure with which their engineering has to fit? Oat of those who do not thus gravitate there will probably ultimately emerge the few mentally rounded individuals who will be capable of solving engineering problems with only one eye on the technical possibilities and the other on other important things, such as the customer and the cash box.

I am not suggesting anything particularly new. There are few new things in human relations, and most of the recent preachment to us is only a call to a restored credence of the ancient gospel of service. I am merely urging that we approximate within our present organization to that form of training which produced the engineering giants of our industry in the recent past. And I am just engineer enough to believe that the method which produced such results in the past is capable of doing so in the future.

What Is Done With Real Engineers

I should like to offer one further thought to any executive whose eyes may have followed me thus far. You are an executive because you have demonstrated your ability to take over-all views of problems and because you possess a certain facility in the handling of men; possibly also because you have proved yourself capable of persuading other people to entrust their money to your keeping. You recognize that you are one of the few of the multitude that started life with you, who have succeeded in gaining recognition of these qualities. Please observe that the well rounded engineer—that is to say, the engineer who blends technical ability and horse sense in exact proportions—is also a rarity. Human experience demonstrates that none too many of such individuals are produced. I do not know how many we may have spoiled in the making by our rather careless and empirical methods of education. Under the circumstances I am rather in favor of doing what little we may, during the part of the educational process which we have under our control, toward evolving as many such well rounded individuals as can be got out of the available raw material.

And then, to put the proper ending on my screed, I am certain that if and when we do succeed in producing these real engineers, we shall most certainly make executives out of them, and keep right on swearing or weeping because we lack engineers of proper caliber. And that's that.



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